Wednesday, June 20, 2012

JASON BLACK CRITIQUES THE FIRST FIVE PAGES

courtesy photbucket
GFW Writers member, Susie Sheehey, is the winner of  the June editor critique by Jason Black with her manuscript Audrey's Promise.  You may remember Jason was a guest  on our blog and his post remains an all time favorite.

To learn more about Jason, scroll to the bottom of the page and don't forget to leave a comment.

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CHAPTER 1
Audrey Allen kept as much distance as possible from bloodsucking media fiends, who always seemed to ruin everything and leave disasters in their wake. So why was she sitting across from a TV anchor with a dozen cameras and lights glaring on her face like a police interrogation?
[An opening paragraph has to grab a reader, hard and fast. This one does well with colorful language such as “bloodsucking fiends,” “ruin,” and “disasters.” Interesting elements such as “TV anchor” and “police interrogation” grab our attention as well. But on the whole, the paragraph doesn’t quite make me sit up and take notice. Part of this is because the paragraph is at a distance from Audrey; while the second sentence is clearly indicative of her thoughts, it isn’t presented as inner monologue. There’s a distance to it, which diminishes the immediacy of the thought. It’s odd, because elsewhere the narrative does use true inner monologue to give us Audrey’s thoughts. So why not here? On the whole, I’m left thinking that an immediate opening in Audrey’s inner monologue might pick this right up. Something like: What am I doing here in front of these bloodsucking media fiends? Considering that other salient elements, such as Audrey’s name, are conveyed again in the next several sentences, nothing is really lost by shortening this opening.]

“And we’re back in five, four-” the producer counted from behind the shadows of the camera.
[For example, this paragraph allows the reader to infer that it’s a TV studio, and moreover, likely some kind of news or talk show, even if the opening paragraph hadn’t mentioned TV at all.]

Because I have a sick need to constantly punish myself.
[I like this, because while it gives us one answer to the question presented in the opening paragraph, it isn’t a direct answer. It isn’t the answer we were expecting, and yet, it’s an interesting answer because it tells us something about Audrey’s attitude, and shares with us her unique, personal voice.]

If it were possible, an even brighter light switched on and burned into Audrey’s retinas. Every nerve ending squirmed in her body, screaming for Audrey to stand and walk out. But she pulled the collar of her sapphire blouse closer to her neck and forced a smile instead.
[The paragraph is kind of rough. The phrase “even brighter” has only a weak correlation with the first paragraph, because while lights were mentioned, their brightness wasn’t. The second sentence contains an alliteration of S-words, “squirmed,” “screaming,” and “stand” which I found distracting. I suspect this was unintentional. As well, the verb “squirmed” is strongly tactile, while the verb “screamed” is auditory, creating a semantic clash between the two. It feels to me like the author is suggesting a feeling of compulsion which Audrey is fighting, so why not use the verb “compelling” instead? Finally, the last sentence doesn’t need both “But” and “instead.” Both of those words indicate contrast between expectation and actuality, so together, they’re redundant. So pick one, and for my money, “instead” is the winner. It’s a nice word to close the paragraph on, bringing closure to the implicit question of whether Audrey is going to give in to the compulsion to split.]

Breathe. Smile, Audrey. You agreed to this.
 “Welcome back, folks. I’m Cathy Claise here with Texas State Senate candidate, Audrey Allen.”
[Nice example of using dialogue to convey information the author wants the reader to have, while avoiding the dreaded “infodump.” The reason it’s not an infodump is because Ms. Cathy Claise’s motivations as a character make it perfectly sensible for her to say that, regardless of what readers might need to know. After all, she’s not talking to us, she’s talking to her TV audience.]

Could this woman’s hair be any more bleached? Sandra Dee meets televangelist Jan Crouch in her mid-forties, desperate to look a decade fresher. But viewers had no idea she looked this fake up close. That’s the magic of TV.
[Again, the narrative is ambiguous. Much of this paragraph sounds like it could be Audrey’s inner monologue, but it isn’t presented that way. Readers are left unsure how to interpret what we just read: did Audrey think that, or not?]

“Audrey has captured the political field by storm, stunning all of the Dallas district as the one candidate to take on Wyatt Williams in this surprising runoff election. Audrey, how have you managed to earn votes from both liberals and conservatives? Some conservatives criticize that you refuse to answer questions on family and religion to hide your deep-set liberal views.”
[The phrase “all of the Dallas district” is awkward. Does it mean “the entire Dallas district,” implying that Dallas is contained in a single legislative district, or is it a typo that should have been “all of the Dallas districts”?]
I knew this was a bad idea. Fire fused to Audrey’s jawbone and spread down her esophagus. Even with the oncoming heartburn, she knew this question was bound to come up. Journalists latched onto any pinprick of weakness and blasted it into a gaping wound, turning what was nothing into a hemorrhage of lies and misinterpretations. Despite her heart rate thumping against her sternum, Audrey kept smiling.
[Little stuff matters. The second sentence of this paragraph indicates a downward-progressing sensation, while at least in my experience heartburn progresses upward through the esophagus. Does it matter to the story? Probably not in the slightest. But it does matter, because small eyebrow-raising moments like this do chip away at the credibility an author has with the reader. Everything that strikes us as not quite right—whether it’s relevant to the plot or not—makes us less confident in the author’s ability to tell us a compelling story.]

As Audrey opened her mouth to answer, she threw a glance over Cathy’s shoulder to her campaign manager, Miranda Gates, who’d stopped guzzling her Starbucks coffee and stared back at her.
“Claire, I’m glad you brought that up.” That way I can quash your attempt to sideswipe me. “First of all, I’m happy my message has reached both conservatives and liberals on the independent ticket. After all, if elected I’ll be serving both parties equally. However, the only thing liberal about me is the high-def powder on my face from the make-up crew here.”
Audrey continued through the muffled snickers from behind the cameras, and Miranda’s expectant nod.
“Just because I don’t talk about my family or religious views doesn’t mean I don’t have them. I’m proud of my family. I’m the person I am today because of them.” Even though they may not be proud of me.
[Great bit of inner monologue, there. That’s a very revealing contrast between speech and thought. A line like that does wonders for sending the reader’s mind spinning with curiosity about what juicy secrets this manuscript has in store for us.]

“My focus right now is my campaign and the people I intend to help with my platforms. Not marriage. So many women in my district need help and a safe place to seek support. The Women’s Crisis Center I’m sponsoring will provide that refuge. “
Way to plug in the WCC, Aud. She could almost hear Miranda’s cheers, silenced by guzzling more coffee. She watched Cathy open her mouth to jab another potential zinger, but the fire in her belly roared and Audrey wouldn’t give this woman the satisfaction.
[The last sentence here is a little too on-the-nose in terms of interpreting Audrey’s motivations for us. It usually plays better to leave motivations unsaid, while providing enough visible evidence for them that readers can deduce the motivations for themselves. Enabling readers to make those kinds of deductions—and then staying out of the way so they can in fact do it—is how a writer creates an interaction between the reader and the text. We don’t want passive, bored readers. We want active readers, whose minds are engaged while they read. If we’re giving them something to think about and things to figure out, then they’ll be having fun. If we do all the work for them and hand them all the conclusions, they’ll be bored. Consider how it would read if that last line were shortened to something like, “She watch Cathy open her mouth for another zinger, but Audrey’s fire was up.” Then jump straight to Audrey’s next line. Now the reader has to connect the dots. Connecting the dots is where the fun of reading is. Don’t take the reader’s fun away by giving them pre-connected dots!]

“And Cathy, my personal faith has nothing to do with my ability to be an effective State Senator. My experience in Texas politics has taught me that an ability to work with others and keep a level head is the best way to help everyone, without losing your sanity in the process.”
Cathy’s laugh-on-command was more a nervous cackle, devoid of genuine emotion. It bubbled under Audrey’s skin like hydrogen peroxide. This desperate TV anchor was more fake than half the plastic-surgery addicted women of mid-town. But also the most watched by that demographic.
[The peroxide crack is perfect. Spot-on for a bleached TV talking-head. But again, the narrative is ambiguous between true narrative and inner monologue.]
“Austin has its way of piling on the body count at the Capitol steps,” Cathy quipped. “You seem more than ready to take on Wyatt Williams next week. The other senators from around the state might be less forgiving.”
Audrey bit the side of her tongue to keep from rolling her eyes.
“This Women’s Crisis Center has a fundraising event coming up, is that correct?” Cathy added.
Finally, something worth talking about.
“Saturday night at the W Hotel in Dallas. We’ll be auctioning off some valuable gifts for this incredible charity.”
“Don’t you think this event on Thanksgiving weekend is bad timing? Won’t many people have spent all their money on Black Friday?”
She never quits.
“On the contrary, Cathy. This is the season of being thankful for your blessings and there’s never a better time to give back to those who need a little help and compassion.”
“Well spoken from the Prolific Peacemaker of the 2nd District.” Cathy flashed her veneers at Audrey until her cheeks cracked. A final turn to the camera let Audrey breath, and release the pressure exerted on her big toe in her black heels. Cathy peered into the camera. “Thank you, Ms. Allen, for joining us here today. Stick around, viewers. We’ll be right back with the perfect trimming for that Thanksgiving Turkey.”
[There are two mechanical errors in this paragraph. There should be a comma after “well spoken,” and “breath” should be “breathe.” Again, little things matter. Mechanical errors indicate lack of effort, and give agents and publishers an excuse to get through their to-do list faster by rejecting the manuscript. For the indie or self-published author, mechanical errors give book bloggers and Amazon reviewers easy fodder to trash-talk you or your book. For those reasons alone, it’s well worth hiring a copy editor before sending the book out into the world.]

Audrey watched the producer in a massive headset hold up his fingers to count down. “And we’re clear.”
The microphone clipped to her silk blouse was the first to come off, followed by the bulky battery in her back pocket. As she fumbled with the wire, Cathy did as well with her words, fake yet again.
“Thanks so much for coming today. And sorry for that last round of questioning. My boss would have fired me if I hadn’t asked them.” Fluffing her bleached bob, Cathy motioned for her makeup assistant. But trusty Miranda stopped her.
“And just how many times will you face termination before you’ll practice ethics?”
[Oh, snap! Let the catfight begin! Boy, there’s nothing like naked verbal aggression to suddenly perk up a scene. And I like that it has come at a time we’re totally not expecting it. The interview’s over, I’m expecting Miranda to whisk Audrey away to her next campaign stop. I’m expecting the narrative to enter some kind of scene transition, but no, it hits us with something much better. Conflict! It also does a great job of immediately showing what kind of person Miranda is. Nicely done.]

Amazing how her fake smile dissipated so quickly into a Nancy Grace scowl. She must have practiced that in the mirror. “Politics is a brutal game, and our viewers expect us to ask the important questions.”
[More of that same stylistic ambiguity here.]
“I think viewers are more interested in the truth, not sleight-of-hand tactics. Good luck getting us to visit your show again in the future.” Miranda bit with a half-smile. Her hazel eyes pierced Cathy’s plastic exterior. Audrey loved Miranda’s passion and unwavering loyalty, and even more loved watching her take the graceful kill. But the election was seven days away. As much as Audrey hated to do it, they needed to give the media a sliver of mercy.
“Cathy, thank you for having me on the show today.” The gracious tone was a lot easier to muster than Audrey expected, now that she’d handed back the microphone to the adolescent-looking sound tech. “And have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your family.”
Ten years of interning in the political quagmire as her mentor’s aide and eventual protégé had taught Audrey that cooler heads always prevailed on the Senate floor. But no amount of time or turmoil would ever dampen her dislike of the media. Stepping off of the makeshift living room in the small studio, away from the intruding cameras, the nagging necessity of the media grew with every ding of Miranda’s Blackberry.
[Word choice is critical. Every word carries a literal meaning, plus a more slippery connotation. While readers will correct for a surprising breath of errors in literal meaning (basically, we know what you meant), connotation is another game entirely. Connotation is where the feeling of the words lives. When you pick your words, pay attention to both layers of meaning. Here, the word “makeshift” feels off to me, because both layers of meaning don’t quite fit my image of a TV studio. “Makeshift” literally means something put together out of parts that were handy, but not necessarily ideal, to do some job. As a reader, I get what the author probably means: it’s not a real living room, it’s just a fake TV-set living room. But “makeshift” has connotations of haphazard, shoddy, and temporary. So even while I know what you meant, those connotations clash strongly with my image of a TV studio set as something slick, polished, and fully intentional down to the last detail. The clash leaves me with no coherent perception of what this location is supposed to be. Intellectually, I know what you meant, but in my gut, I don’t feel it. As well, consider the word “Blackberry.” Beware, beware, beware technology. It changes so fast that if you include mentions of specific technology in your story, the story is likely to feel dated before you’re even done writing the book. Indeed, while the Blackberry was indeed the number-one cell phone and e-mail device for businesspersons and politicians not so many years ago, the iPhone has now pretty much killed it. The story clearly has a feeling of being set in the contemporary world, yet the word “Blackberry” makes it feel not quite contemporary. And you can’t win by going with iPhone either; then you’re just going to sound like you’re trying to be trendy. The answer is almost always to be less specific when it comes to technology. Does it matter what kind of phone Audrey has? Of course not. So, just say “cell phone” and leave it at that.]

“I need a Diet, Mandy.” Tension pulled at the muscles in her neck. Maybe it was all the weight of the extra makeup they made her wear, or the weight of the election taking its toll. Soon enough it would all be over, and hopefully Audrey could make the impact that her district desperately needed.
Without taking her eyes off her Blackberry and lightning-fast thumb, Miranda reached into her massive purse and pulled out a silver can.
“You’re scary sometimes. But I love you.” Audrey opened the can and sipped the delectable bubbles, letting it run through her senses and across her taste buds. Thank God.
“Pampering you is what I do best.”
[In terms of characterization, I like this scene ending. It conveys a lot about the relationship between these two women, without beating us over the head with it. Again, it lets the reader draw the conclusions. But in terms of broader story-craft, it doesn’t do anything in particular to propel the reader forward through the story. It’s a nice, neat bow tied on the end of the scene, but it doesn’t leave us with any burning question that we simply have to jump into the next chapter to answer. Imagine, for example, if the scene contained just one more short paragraph:

Mandy’s thumbs came to an abrupt stop. She stared at her phone. “Oh, crap.” She handed the phone over. “You have to see this.”

Now there’s a question, and nobody had to look very far to find it: What? What does she have to see? Tell me now!

That’s a hook ending. That’s an ending which compels the reader to keep reading. And isn’t that what we want readers to do?

I’ve picked on a bunch of stuff in this short scene—that was the whole point, after all—but on the whole it’s a pretty strong scene. As an opening scene, it clearly establishes the protagonist, her situation, one important supporting player, and one character who may turn out to be an antagonist. It did all that pretty smoothly overall, without infodumping or resorting to lengthy stretches of exposition. Already, that puts this scene in a rarefied air compared to much of what I see. My advice to this author is definitely to keep going. Work on those little detail elements, which are still kind of rough, and definitely work on clarifying the distinction between the narrative portions and the inner monologue portions so readers are clear as to which is which. Do that, and this will become a very strong scene indeed.]


A Note From Jason Black..
I am a book doctor who has helped scores of novelists improve their work over the past several years. I take a very analytical approach to literature, seeking to discover the "fundamental forces of fiction" and understand how those forces play out in narrative. My philosophy is that it is not enough simply to learn the rules-of-thumb for good narrative--use active voice, avoid adverbs, et cetera--without understanding why we have those rules, how they derive from those fundamental forces, and what effect following or breaking those rules has on the reader's experience of our stories. That's what I am constantly working to understand, and what I strive to share with my clients. 
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15 comments:

Jason Black said...

Hello folks. Jason Black here.

First, let me thank Ruby Johnson for inviting me onto your blog today, and to Susie Sheehey for being brave enough to let her work be critiqued in public.

I'll pop in and out throughout the day to answer any questions people have, so fire away!

Laine said...

I would like to ask this question. I get comments back from agents saying the plot is good, the pace is good, but the character lacks emotion. What can I do to improve this?
Laine

SusieSheehey said...

Thanks so much, Jason! Excellent suggestions. So many of those little details I had never considered. Really appreciate your eyes and expertise! You have a permanent follower in me!

Terri said...

You're spot on about technical errors-spelling, words that sound the same like your and you're. I once submitted to a contest and spelled genteel incorrectly as gentile. Really confused the judge!

Jeff Turner www.ilypants.net said...

Little things do matter. I am prone to miss such. Hence I started using an editor for my non-fiction books.

J. A. Bennett said...

Jason, thank you for taking so much time with your comments. There we so many nuggets of useful info I think I need to reread it several times. The part about finding a balance in how you lay out the story so the reader's brain is ingaged and can connect the dots is something I agonize over all the time. Am I giving too much? Am I confusing too much? But I've come to the conclusion its a skill I can only hone with lots of practice :)

Thanks again. I've learned a ton.

Jason Black said...

Laine--

The short answer to your question is, "include more of your character's reactions to events/situations."

The thing a writer needs to recognize is that emotion isn't just there for its own sake. Emotions exist in relation to what's going on in our lives. If I'm feeling calm and happy right now, it's because I'm doing something I enjoy--talking about writing! If I were, let's say, driving my kid to the E.R., I would be experiencing a whole different set of emotions.

So the longer answer to your question involves a process of empathy between you and your characters. If people are telling you the characters lack emotion, it probably means you are having trouble empathizing with how your characters feel at any given time. That's the skill you really need to work on, because if you don't know how they'd feel, how can you possibly put those feelings in the story?

So how do you learn to empathize with your characters? Ultimately, you need to develop the ability to imagine the realistic feelings of people who may be quite different from yourself--after all, most of your characters probably aren't exactly like you. That's not necessarily easy, but a good place to start is by asking yourself how you would feel in whatever situation you've dumped a character into.

This works because the broad patterns of human emotion are pretty stable, across a wide variety of people. Almost nobody isn't happy when they receive a hug from a loved one. As you develop the "how would I feel?" skill, you can start to branch out to imagine different feelings for characters who don't share your background.

Once you know how the character would feel, you render that in the story by means of the external manifestations of those feelings.

I cannot stress that part strongly enough. External manifestations. This is "show, don't tell" territory. Don't just tell us your character is angry, show us the visible behaviors the character demonstrates in response to that anger. Then, just like I suggested to Susie, get out of the way so we can connect the dots.

Jason Black said...

J. A. Bennett--

Giving readers the dots, then letting them do the connecting, that's basically all "show, don't tell" means.

But learn it, because it is THE number one bedrock skill of successful narrative. And I'll give you a tip on that.

Most writers struggle with "show, don't tell" because they don't grasp the difference between the dots and the connections, and/or they get tricked by the fact that what's truly important in the story are the connections, rather than the dots. So they end up giving the connections without the dots, or giving both.

Stick with the dots. Let the readers do the connecting.

So what's the difference between the two? It's pretty simple once it's boiled down: the dots are the external, visible manifestations of the connections between them.

The connections themselves tend to be internal, invisible factors about characters: their states of mind, their feelings, their goals and motivations, their beliefs, their relationships to other people, and so forth.

Look at that list of internal, invisible things. Every single one of them, in the right circumstances, manifests in some externally visible way. If one character hates another's guts, that will show in the the way he talks to the other guy, the way he acts towards him, et cetera.

The talking, the actions, those are the dots. The internal attitude of hating somebody, that's the connection you want to let the reader discover for themselves.

Give us the visible stuff: the snotty, disrespectful dialogue, the crossed arms, whatever. Leave the invisible stuff for us to find.

Jeff Bacot said...

Susie, congrats on having the bravery to endure the sometimes overly harsh criticisms levelled here. I agree with much of what Jason said, but some of it sounds like it came from a writing book. Since I know your voice and style, next group meeting I will fill you in on some of my thoughts.
Overall, good work. Taking heat is hard as a writer, but "you gotta bleed to know you're alive." Sometimes.

Cal said...

Just a question to Jeff, one of your writers. What makes you think someone who does this for a living has to resort to a writing book to edit a manuscript. You can get an idea of voice and style in five pages or you shouldn't be in this kind of work. Just my two cents. Perhaps adding your thoughts here about your friends work might be of interest to others who want to learn.

Ruby Johnson said...

Jaon:
Thanks so much for your wonderful answers today. They were thoughtful and full of teachable moments.
I am sure Susie appreciated your help.
Looking forward to your next visit.

Ruby Johnson said...

Jason:
So sorry for letting a typo through. Just points out how important it is to proof read before hitting the send button.

Jason Black said...

Ruby--

No worries. :) I noticed a typo in my critique, too. Happens to the best of us. Thanks again for having me, and I'll be happy to come back any time.

kimberlypackard said...

Sorry to be late to the game, but thank you, Susie, for being the victim, er, subject. :-) And, Jason, thank you for sharing your expertise.

kimberlypackard said...

Sorry to be late to the game, but thank you, Susie, for being the victim, er, subject. :-) And, Jason, thank you for sharing your expertise.

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